A discussion of Dayton’s city commission system
By: Alex Culpepper
Government at Large
It is probably an understatement to say right now that people in this country have a dim view of government. In fact, government seems to find its popularity these days fluctuating somewhere between hit-and-run accidents and fungal infections. That’s not to say all government is taking a hit, because government functions such as the military and social security get high marks from the country at large. Often it is the elected officials whom citizens seem to have a problem with, but sometimes the system of government causes people to hold their noses, too. This is true at the local level as well, and Dayton’s system of government does not escape scrutiny.
Dayton’s government is a commission-manager plan – or city manager plan – and the city stakes claim to being the major city in the United States to adopt such a system in 1913 as a response to the devastation of the Great Flood of 1913. During that time, all the city commissioners were busy overseeing the resuscitation of the city, so they had no time for daily administration of city affairs. What happened next was they chartered for someone who could help, and that person became the city manager. It’s been that way ever since.
Dayton’s government has three main parts: a commission, a mayor and a city manager, all working together in an attempt to drive policy, provide services and keep people safe and content. Critics of this setup, however, cite some shortcomings with each part and with the potential for imbalances inherent in the system.
The City Commission
The city commission is a small governing board of part-time representatives elected by the public. The commission is the executive and legislative body of Dayton city government, and it oversees policy decisions, solves problems, and plans the city’s goals and appoints the city manager. Here in Dayton we have five commissioners, one of whom is the mayor. Each one is elected to a four-year term, and terms of service for each commissioner usually overlap so that the city does not seek all five commissioners at once.
The purpose of the city commission is to direct policy, meet with people to identify problems, discuss the issues and go to the city manager and see how resources can be used to solve those problems. But the city commission structure has some faults, according to critics. For one thing, it operates much like a corporate board, but the city is not a corporation and has different issues and needs. One common problem cited is it brings together a group of commissioners who may all have different interests, yet in theory they all share equal power. In such a case, what you can get is a variety of issues and policy initiatives that do not get resolved because of group disagreements, and no single person holds power for accomplishing those goals.
The opposite can also happen when commissioners are mostly unified and backed by particular political influence and resources, leading to what some people call a “good ol’ boy” network that allows for one party to control the system. Sometimes, this monopoly leads commissions to focus too much on national issues, as has happened recently here in Dayton with the passage of resolutions that have no authority within the city or state, such as the stand-your-ground and right-to-work resolutions. Critics claim it is unnecessary for supposed nonpartisan officials to render partisan decisions.
Also, the administrative power in the city resides with the city manager, who oversees the day-to-day city business, but who still must carry out policy initiatives of the commission. Further, because the commission maintains the most power in Dayton city government, it can leave legislative, executive and administrative decisions vulnerable to political sway, even though the commission is supposed to be nonpartisan.
Critics cite the role of mayor in a system like Dayton’s as a problem because it is considered a “weak mayor” form of government. That doesn’t mean the mayor is a particularly weak official; it just means the mayor is another member of the commission and really has no more power outside the commission than any of the other commission members. The mayor really has no legislative power and must win over other commission members to change policy for the city and is only seen as a leader in a ceremonial capacity. Sometimes, though, the mayor may have the ear of the city manager and can work with the city manager to influence policy, but all still must pass through the commission for anything to get done.
A city can have a de facto strong mayor within the weak mayor system if that mayor and several of the commissioners are part of the same party. This usually leaves the mayor with political power over the other commission members. This has happened in Dayton from time to time. This situation, though, can send the city government into the “good ‘ol boy” territory mentioned earlier. Or, as current Dayton Mayor Gary Leitzell said, “If you want a strong mayor form of government, then you have to write into the charter of that government that you need at least one [commission member] not of the party in control.” The theory suggests this allows for more checks and balances.
Another sticking point regarding the mayor is the primary election, which is part of Dayton’s governmental process. Critics find this a waste of time and money and feel mayoral hopefuls should just line up for one election and let the public decide. If run-offs are needed, then let it happen, they say. So, with the current system, what you get is basically two elections for mayor – which can be expensive – and those two elections are for an official who doesn’t necessarily run the city.
The City Manager
Within the weak mayor commission system, it is the city manager who holds the meaningful power and “runs” the city. The city manager is hired by the commission members. In essence, what you have is someone who was not elected by the public making all the decisions that people normally might think are made by the mayor. The city manager is responsible for the city budget, supervises the city staff and functions as an objective, nonpartisan advisor to the commission and carries out the commission’s policies. Opponents of this system question the setup of having an official who is non-elected, has no term limits, operates under the radar of public view and is only responsible to the five-person commission. This is exactly what Dayton has.
The Two-Party Effect
The two-party system has its detractors through all levels of government, and it is seen as an impediment to representation because the claim is it functions to strengthen itself and lock out all others, and “it allows for one party to have a monopoly on an antiquated system,” according to Mayor Leitzell. The two-party system affects local politics here in Dayton, too. Because of the inherent might of the two-party system, independents have struggled to serve as commission members or as mayor, though Dayton managed to elect an independent mayor. In the two-party system, each party can find nearly anyone to run for commission. That person might really not be qualified for that position, but they can get the backing from the party members and then have the influence of the party and backers behind them when it comes to decision-making. So, by shutting out independents, the two-party system becomes stronger because an independent candidate generally does not have the political capital of the other party members in the race.
Why a city commission?
The city manager plan/weak mayor system of city government is common in U.S. cities, and maybe that’s why Dayton has it and has stuck with it. As efficient as it may be at times, it still has drawbacks, as can be seen here in Dayton. The commission is democratically elected and serves in a nonpartisan capacity, even though party politics plays a big part in candidates becoming commission members. The basis for the city manager is to avoid contaminating administrative duties with political ideology, but he or she serves the interests of the commission and is appointed rather than elected. Under the right circumstances, the mayor can wield influence, yet he or she holds little if any power over the rest of the commission. And the two-party system, though ideally representing the public, allows the parties to maintain power at the expense of independent candidates. It all may give meaning to the saying, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”
Reach DCP freelance writer Alex Culpepper at AlexCulpepper@DaytonCityPaper.com.